Of the four sea forts that guard the Solent, St Helen's Fort1 is both the smallest fort, and that closest to the Isle of Wight. It guards St Helen's Roads, an anchorage off St Helen's that was frequently used by the Royal Navy as it is close to Portsmouth and near the spring in the village of St Helens which had particularly high quality water. The anchorage was sheltered from all but south-east winds, and was 8 fathoms deep so even large vessels could use the anchorage in safety.
St Helens Roads also led to the mouth of the East River Yar, the entrance to Brading Haven and Bembridge Harbour. This made it one of the most vulnerable locations for an enemy invasion force trying to capture the Isle of Wight, after Sandown Bay, and indeed in 1545 a French force had landed in this area. A small fort had been built to defend the entrance in Henry VIII's reign, yet since then the area had gone largely undefended.
The Original Proposals
When the Royal Commission on the Defences of the United Kingdom made its report in 1860, no fort to defend St Helens was proposed. Instead St Helens Roads would be defended by large 10-gun batteries near Appley House and Nettlestone Point. These batteries were replaced with a single battery built at Puckpool Point. However, in 1863 the Defence Committee reconsidered its options. Although no site for an earthwork could be found at St Helens, a small battery for eight guns was considered on the beach near Nodes Point. In 1864, when the sea fort proposed for the Sturbridge shoal was abandoned due to the inability to build the foundations, a Special Committee was appointed to reconsider the options. This committee wrote:
'A fort which is to be built off St Helen's Point on the Isle of Wight, near the entrance to Brading Haven. This fort is part of the defences of the Isle of Wight.'
Work constructing sea forts at Spit Sand, Ryde Sand and St Helen's were then approved. St Helen's Fort would be constructed at the end of a sandbank's spit that projected eastward from Bembridge Point.
This fort would be smaller than the other sea forts and have only one tier of casemates, with iron plating armour only on the seaward side, which was a third of the fort, and granite on the landward sides. It was believed that the sandbanks behind the fort would prevent any heavy ship from attacking from the landward sides. The fort would be armed with fifteen guns in casemates and four guns in two turrets on the roof.
The fort's role would be to defend St Helens Road and the shore between Bembridge and Nettlestone. St Helen's Fort would also be a central link between the sea forts with the Isle of Wight east forts, including Puckpool Battery and Bembridge Fort.
Constructing St Helen's Fort
Unlike the other sea forts, St Helen's Fort's foundations were not constructed out of pre-cut stones and concrete blocks. A different approach was used, whereby a circular iron caisson was laid on the sea bed and surrounded with stone and concrete blocks. This was because the sandbank lay on shingle and blue slipper clay. Walls of stone were then erected in 1867, with the rest of the fort's structure built of concrete and granite.
In 1869 the fort was described thus:
'The fort is placed on the outer edge of the shoal, where the sand is nearly uncovered at low water spring tides. The foundations for the work are formed by a ring of iron caissons sunk to an average depth of 25 feet six inches below the surface of the shoal, passing through sand and shingle, and five feet into the clay. Within this ring the sand has been dredged out and the space thus excavated filled with concrete; this bed of concrete is 10 feet thick and its surface is 2 feet above low water ordinary spring tides.
The outer wall of the basement is completed. The superstructure will be of iron on the outer half of the fort where exposed to fire from ships, and of granite towards the land; it will be armed with six heavy guns to seaward, and four lighter guns behind on the land face. It is well designed as to permanency and stability, and the arrangements for the service of the guns are satisfactory.'
Despite this report boasting permanency and stability, the foundations began to settle unevenly on the clay, causing the fort to tilt soon after the basement level was built. It was at this point that it was realised that building the fort as originally planned would not be possible. The fort's foundations would not be able to cope with the weight of a full gun level. The fort's gun floor was redesigned only to cover the east side, giving the fort a lop-sided appearance and reducing the number of guns that the fort could be armed with on this level from ten to five. It was proposed in 1870 to mount a further four guns in two turrets on the roof, though the turrets were never actually constructed. In 1878 it was decided that, due to the weight of the fort and the reduced gun floor, constructing the turrets would be inadvisable
St Helen's Fort is the only one of the four sea forts not circular in form. Entry to the fort was to a two-level landing stage on the fort's north side. This gave access to a gallery that led around the fort to the fort's west side, where a door led into the basement.
The basement level was the only floor completed to anywhere near its original intended size, even though it was constructed as oval rather than circular as envisioned. Next to the doorway into the fort were the artillery stores and two shell stores. The shell store rooms each contained lifts to the gun floor above. A passageway led from the entry corridor to the centre of the fort as well as the main passageways and the stairs.
Near the centre of the basement was the fort's pump room, where water could be accessed. This was off the circular ammunition passage, which also contained a general lift. The well shaft went 171-feet beneath the sea bed.
Off the ammunition passage on the outer side were three shell stores and a cartridge store. These were lit from lamps contained off the lamp passage, a narrow circular corridor radiating around the outside of the store rooms. To the other side were further store rooms originally envisioned as further shell store, but instead used as the larder, RE store and general storage space. On the fort's north-west and south-west sides were the other two cartridge stores. These were lit from lamp passages next to the outer wall of the fort. Lighting and ventilation were provided by grills from above.
The gun floor, a split level floor, occupied a third of the space of the basement, on the fort's centre and western side. The staircase up was behind the entrance, beneath cistern tanks that held 2,000 gallons of water. This led to a north-south corridor.
On the gun floor's north-east and south-east corners were guns 1 and 3. These were both 10-inch 18-ton RMLs mounted on racers and turntables behind iron shielding. Both were capable of firing east, with the north gun also able to fire north and the south gun able to fire south, having a 120 degree arc. The 23-feet in diameter turntables were rotated through the use of a winch in the corridor near the turntables and were intended to transfer the guns between the gun ports only, with the racers on the turntables used to aim the gun. Beneath these turntables were cast-iron columns helping to support the extra weight of the turntables and guns. The turntables were designed to be able to be lifted for inspection and cleaning without the gun needing to be dismantled. These guns were 14 feet above the High Water Mark. Between these guns were two rooms that had originally been intended to house smaller 40-pounder rifled breech-loading guns to protect and defend the fort's entrance, although these guns were never fitted. Instead the northern room was used as soldier's quarters for five men and the southern as the NCO's quarters. Hammock hooks were installed so that an additional 24 men would be accommodated here in wartime.
To the east was Gun Number 2, the heavy 38-ton 12.5-inch rifled muzzle loader. This was mounted on racers and would fire east. This gun was 15.5 feet above the high water mark. The armour here consisted of three 8-inch thick plates of iron. Behind the gun were stairs to the roof. This arrangement of guns on turntables and one in a standard casemate was found in only one other fort in the British Empire; Sliema Point Battery, Malta.
Initially after construction the roof held little other than the flagstaff and air intakes, outlets and vents. In the early twentieth century two searchlights were installed on the roof of the basement, facing north and east, with two quick firing gun positions on the north and south sides installed at the turn of the century.
The fort was declared complete in July 1880, although awaiting delivery of its final weapons, which arrived before the year ended. In 1882 it had been decided to supplement the defences of St Helen's Fort with five machine guns. In 1884 the Director of Artillery was concerned that these machine guns had been intended to replace the two 40-pounder guns that had been proposed to defend the fort's entrance, and began a discussion with the Royal Artillery and Royal Engineers Work Committee about mounting more defences. This discussion continued until 1895 when two Hotchkiss2 quick firing guns were placed on the roof at the rear of the fort, above the entrance, to defend the fort and protect St Helen's Roads from torpedo boats.
In 1887 the Stanhope Committee investigating the defences of Portsmouth concluded that the area St Helen's Fort was meant to defend was a weak spot. An enemy warship with long-range weapons could anchor in front of the fort and bombard the dockyard, and as St Helen's Fort could not take heavier guns due to the instability problem, a new battery in the area would be required. As an interim measure it was approved for the fort to be re-armed with two 6-inch breech-loading guns, although these weapons were not mounted.
In 1904 Nodes Point Battery was built at Nodes Point, near the fort. Nodes Point's modern 6-inch and 9.2-inch weapons made St Helen's Fort's rifled muzzleloaders obsolete, and the fort was placed into care and maintenance. In 1911 a navigation light on a square 30-feet tall tower was placed on the roof by Trinity House, Britain's lighthouse authority, and a caretaker stayed in the fort to look after the light.
The Great War and the Second World War
During the Great War St Helen's Fort was used as the examination battery for ships entering the area. Two 12-pounder quick firing guns were mounted on the roof and two searchlights in temporary emplacements on the roof of the basement installed. Any ships approaching Spithead would be spotted by the searchlight and all the guns in the area, including those at Nodes Point Battery and Culver Battery would be alerted. A battery command post was built around the base of the light tower. During the war the former barracks room was used as the officer's quarters with the men accommodated in the former 10-inch gun emplacements. The fort was manned by No 32 Company Royal Artillery who also manned nearby Nodes Point Battery.
The 12-pounder quick firing guns were dismounted in September 1918, but not removed until 1927. Again the fort was placed in care and maintenance and manned by a caretaker and his family. In 1935 the searchlight emplacements were reconstructed in concrete.
During the Second World War the examination anchorage was off No Man's Land Fort, with St Helen's Fort used mainly as a searchlight position for the Nodes Point and Culver Batteries. The searchlights were manned initially by B Battery, 529 Coast Regiment Royal Artillery (TA) who also manned Nodes Point Battery, although the searchlights later became the responsibility of 527 Coast Regiment. In 1943 a 40mm Bofors anti-aircraft gun was installed, the only gun present throughout the war. This anti-aircraft gun was also intended for use as an anti-shipping weapon to defend Spithead from German E-boats3.
After the Second World War the gun was removed; however the searchlights remained to assist in training Territorial Army gunners at Nodes Point Battery. In 1956 Coast Defence ended and the searchlights were sold to HP Jollif of Cowes. In 1972 St Helen's Fort was briefly visible in the second scene in the classic Doctor Who story The Sea Devils. It can be glimpsed in the scene in which Jon Pertwee approaches the island that the Master is imprisoned on, a scene that was filmed in Bembridge Harbour and had originally been intended to have the Doctor water-skiing in. The fort was put on the market by the Ministry of Defence in the late 1960s and was sold and used as a private residence from 1983 until the early 21st Century, when the fort was sold to the Isle of Wight Council in 2003.
In recent years St Helen's Fort has been the target for an annual pilgrimage. On the lowest tides of the year, which normally occurs in early August, walkers walk to St Helen's Fort from Nodes Point along the narrow spit of land that is normally well below water. Due to the very strong currents this is only safe to do at the lowest tide of the year and should not be attempted at any other time. Indeed, even at the lowest tide of the year a hovercraft and local vessels stand by, ready to rescue anyone straggling behind from the sandbank when the tide comes in. The tide only allows an hour in which to attempt the walk. It is possible for a person of average height to complete the walk without getting wet above the legs.
This annual event4 started as a family tradition in the 1960s, was expanded to include the Bembridge Sailing Club and has now grown beyond all recognition. It prides itself on being organised purely by word of mouth, an unhelpful approach that discourages visitors unfamiliar with tide timetables from taking part. It is often rumoured that the real reason the word of mouth approach has been adopted so that, should a serious accident occur, no-one can be sued.